When it comes to enhancing athletic performance and muscle growth, creatine is the most popular dietary supplement amongst athletes and fitness enthusiasts. Go into any store that sells sports supplements, and you’ll find it. Hundreds of pills, capsules, and powders are marketed to anyone trying to get their strength gains in. Because the market is so saturated, there are many types of creatine, and it can be confusing to determine which is right for you. So that’s what I’m here to help with. This blog will specifically compare creatine HCl and monohydrate.
What is creatine?
To start, what exactly is creatine? Creatine is a protein building block, or an amino acid derivative, made from the amino acids glycine and arginine. It is both made in the body (endogenous) and found in foods you eat, such as meat and fish (exogenous). Creatine is stored in the skeletal muscles and used as energy during high-intensity and short-duration exercise (like lifting weights). Supplemental creatine works by increasing the amount of creatine phosphate in the muscles, which helps produce more adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the primary energy source for muscular contraction. For those of you who remember learning physiology, you might remember the ATP-PCr energy system, and PCr stands for phosphocreatine.
Benefits of Creatine
Creatine is one of the best-studied supplements, with substantial evidence to support its use when combined with resistance training. Since it works by increasing the amount of creatine phosphate in the muscles, which helps produce more adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the primary energy source for muscular contraction.
Drawbacks of Creatine
There are some purported drawbacks to creatine supplementation.
The first is a possible increase in body weight. Some studies show an increased mass in both males and females and trained and untrained individuals when on creatine supplementation compared to the placebo group. This is likely because creatine increases cell osmotic pressure, leading to cell swelling, represented by increased muscle thickness and mass. This is a fancy way of saying that the cells retain water, get bloated, and are thicc-er. While water retention does play a role in the initial weight gain on creatine, since creatine does improve the ability to train more, muscle size may increase over time.
Weight gain on creatine may be about two to five pounds over twelve weeks during a loading phase of creatine, in addition to resistance training. Weight gain is highly variable, depending on the individual’s response. Some people may put muscle on quickly, and some may not. And other studies have not shown an increase in weight.
Creatine also gets a reputation for causing dehydration and being dangerous to kidney health. While these are very real possibilities, taking the recommended dosage and adequate water consumption should allow a person to supplement with creatine safely. Remember that water is being pulled into the muscle cells, and thus, on a creatine supplement, you may feel thirstier and will probably need to drink more water than usual. To minimize risks, work with an RD to determine an appropriate dose and hydration strategy. However, if you take any medication that increases your risk of dehydration, you should talk to a doctor before starting a creatine supplement.
Finally, it has been reported additional side effects of creatine supplementation include gastrointestinal distress or muscle cramping. However, most research has refuted these claims. Researchers found the incidence of cramping in football players practicing in the heat while taking creatine was similar to the football players not taking creatine. Similarly designed studies have found the same results, with creatine supplementation not causing a significant increase in gastrointestinal issues or stomach or muscle cramping.
Now that we know what creatine can do, let’s compare the different types of creatine products available. The two most commonly seen supplement forms are creatine hydrochloride and creatine monohydrate.
Creatine HCl, or creatine hydrochloride, is one of the newer forms of creatine. Researchers claim the creatine molecule is bound with hydrochloric acid, which increases its water solubility and bioavailability. For these claims to be valid, creatine HCl would need to have faster absorption than previous forms of creatine. To be absorbed faster, HCl would have to enter the muscle easier than monohydrate and require less water to dissolve. Finally, HCl proponents claim that HCl supplementation allows a lower dose to increase creatine stores because it is better absorbed.
Unfortunately, HCl is a newer form and has yet to be as widely studied as creatine monohydrate. The research that has been done has yet to show that HCl is absorbed as effectively as creatine monohydrate or that it promotes greater muscle creatine retention.
Creatine monohydrate is the most common form of creatine and the most extensively studied. It is the gold standard used in nearly all research utilizing creatine. Creatine is highly bioavailable, safe, effective, and low-cost. It is a combination of a creatine molecule with a water molecule, and when crystallized, it forms a powder that contains 87.9% creatine and has been shown to increase creatine in muscle cells. The consensus of the ACSM, AND, Dietitians of Canada, and ISSN is that creatine is the most effective ergogenic nutritional supplement available. Creatine has applications in reducing muscle damage after intense exercise, improving outcomes in post-concussion recovery, and preventing age-related muscle loss.
Creatine HCl vs Monohydrate
While creatine HCl is highly marketed, more research is needed on its efficacy. Only two small studies by the same lab have found exercise performance improvements with both creatine HCl and creatine monohydrate. Those same studies found that only creatine HCl allowed for changes in body composition, specifically lean body mass, with a significant difference between different HCl doses. For more information on the rebuttal of the findings in those studies, I direct you to a recent review in Nutrients where Kreider et al. ultimately conclude that there are no peer-reviewed studies favoring HCl and thus, “there is no evidence that Cr-HCl is absorbed more effectively than CrM [creatine monohydrate] in humans; Cr-HCl promotes greater muscle creatine retention than CrM at equivalent doses; or, that lower doses of Cr-HCl are as effective as standard supplementation protocols with CrM.”
A third study done by a different lab did not show better results for exercise performance in HCl versus monohydrate. A recent review did not draw conclusive evidence of the efficacy of any type of creatine compared to creatine monohydrate. In addition to not having the scientific background of monohydrate, creatine HCl is often more expensive, and there are fewer options for purchasing it.
While more research is needed, creatine HCl has yet to be shown to be better, safer, less expensive, or more effective than the monohydrate form in improving athletic performance or muscle growth. According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition, creatine monohydrate remains the “most extensively studied and clinically effective form of creatine.”
We know creatine monohydrate is best studied and with what we currently know, it is the best absorbed. But how do we actually utilize it?
When it comes to creatine supplementation, people may use a few different protocols. One standard method starts with a loading phase, where an individual takes a higher dose of creatine, up to 20 grams, for several days. This loading phase may result in some water retention, which can cause the weight gain we talked about earlier. After the loading phase, a maintenance phase can be started. During this phase, a smaller dose of creatine is taken to maintain the elevated creatine levels in the muscles.
The second method still includes a loading phase but instead of taking the high dose one time a day, the athlete will take smaller doses throughout the day. This will usually be 5-gram doses four times throughout the day. I find this method to be the most difficult as it is not very practical for a busy athlete to carry their creatine around all day to take it at regular intervals. Do what works for you!
Finally, many athletes may choose to skip a loading phase and take a smaller dose long-term. With this, they will take a small dose, typically 3-5 grams daily.
Creatine increases the amount of creatine phosphate in the muscles, which helps produce more adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP is the primary energy source for muscular contraction. Greater energy in the cell can lead to the ability to do more resistance training. This is why creatine is often referred to as the “one more rep” supplement. Because of this, creatine be taken before a workout to maximize its’ ability to improve strength. However, it seems like creatine may be just as effective when taken post-exercise or during exercise. Even still, research has not determined if the timing of creatine is truly important at all. It seems that without more information, the best time to take creatine is when the athlete will take it.
Supplementation is multi-faceted, and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all. And when it comes to creatine HCl vs. monohydrate, creatine monohydrate wins. And when it comes to deciding if creatine is right for you, a Registered Dietitian can help. Dietitians can help determine the correct dose, time, and duration of creatine supplementation most beneficial for you sport.